If there is no right way then how does one make a legal research plan? Well, start with a self-assessment. You probably have a sense of what comes more naturally to you, as well as where your strengths and weakness lie. Remember the best method is the one that helps you to stay on task, tracks where you have been, and guides you to the information you need. A basic research plan will break down your questions into specific research tasks, identify sources to use in your research, and begin to identify search terms.
Below are some examples of ways people approach legal research planning. Read through them and see if you can identify a format that might work best for you. Not sure? Try out different approaches. Still not sure? Make your own!
Sometimes while following your research plan you find you are retrieving too many results--or too few. It is important to remember the plan itself should be part of the evolving process of legal research. You may need to revisit--possibly more than once--your plan in order to get the best results. Below are a few tips to help you address how to gather a manageable and comprehensive number of resources.
What if you have looked at secondary resources, made a plan, and found plenty of resources, but find yourself very confused about your research? (Perhaps even more so than when you started!) You may feel like you have done everything you were supposed to do and are not any closer to being ready to deliver a result.
WHAT IF I AM CONFUSED OR STUCK DURING MY RESEARCH?
If you get confused or stuck along the way there are several steps that can help you get on--or back on--track.
WHAT IF I SIMPLY CAN'T FIND AN ANSWER?
It happens. There are still areas of law with no on-point authorities to follow. Just like when you are stuck or confused, there are a few steps you can follow next.
Knowing when to stop researching can be the very hardest part of any research assignment! It is important to check-in throughout your research and access whether it is time to conclude.
Remember, sometimes in law the answer is that there is no answer! There are areas of law which will have no relevant authority. Below are questions you can ask yourself to determine what--if anything--there might be left to do before wrapping up a research project. These questions can help you confidently distinguish between "there is no answer" and "I can't find one."
STOP WHEN YOU ARE CONFIDENT YOU HAVE DONE A THOROUGH JOB
If you feel confident you have done a thorough job then it may be time to stop. Double-check your thoroughness by comparing what you have done to your research plan.
STOP WHEN YOUR EFFORTS ARE PRODUCING NO NEW RESULTS
When you are finding good sources that are on point and answering your question, but stop producing new results no matter what tool you use or how you tweak your search--it is time to stop.
STOP WHEN YOU CAN ANSWER THE QUESTION(S) YOU SET OUT TO ANSWER
There may be a seemingly unending number of sources on your topic. If you have your mandatory authorities and can answer the question you have been asked in the format required it is all right to stop.
STOP WHEN YOU HAVE RUN OUT OF TIME OR MONEY
What if you are out of time/money and you are still not finished??? Communicate with the assigning partner or client for whom you are doing the work. Let them know (1) this is what I have done, (2) this is what needs to be done, (3) do you want me to continue?
When undertaking a legal research assignment, it is a best practice to think about what the result of the project should look like when you are finished. The output--or deliverable--will vary based on a number of factors.
You may have been asked to prepare a memo, draft a brief, or prepare a letter to a client. Each of these documents have their own structure and requirements. For example, a memo is an objective piece of legal writing which should demonstrate the full picture of the legal authority on both sides on an issue. In objective writing you would almost exclusively cite to primary authority. An appellate brief (like the one you will write in the spring), however, is a persuasive deliverable addressed to the court. While primary authority will remain the most dominate part of your research support, legislative history, legal and non-legal secondary sources, and statistics and other data might find their way into your final product. Thinking in advance about the format will help you efficiently craft a legal research plan and assess the completeness of your final research.
CREATING HIGH-QUALITY DELIVERABLES
There are a few best practices which can help ensure your final product will be polished and useful.